The men who helped make Marvin Mandel, and the men he made, were nowhere in sight that afternoon when he returned to Maryland. They were not among the crowd that cheered as he stepped into the international airport purchased by his once-mighty administration, near property owned by some of his closest political friends.

They are too numerous to tally, these men -- bosses, financiers, staff members, strategists, vote-counters, precinct workers, arm-twisters, legislative whips, functionaries, listeners in county courthouses, sheriffs, clerks, fellow pols -- all cogs in the most powerful political machine in modern Maryland times.

They would give very different explanations for their absence. Some, saying they still "love the man," simply preferred private reunions. Others said it was calculated; there is nothing to gain from getting too close, they said-- not now. Still others said they were so personally drained by the Mandel years that they did not want to risk being sucked back into a world they have left behind.

"When it's over, it's over," several of them said, using exactly the same phrase in separate interviews, as if they had talked it out among themselves over long years.

They should know. They were the fuel for the Mandel mystique, and now they have moved on. Now there is no more staff working 14-hour days, dispensing patronage for him, taking heat for him, brokering votes for him, winning praise for him, studying people for him, vying for closeness to him -- becoming, at times, intoxicated by the concentration of power, or the appearance of it, in one diminutive man in a second-floor statehouse office. No more billions to budget, no more programs to craft. No more limousines, no more chauffeurs, no more Marvin Mandel cufflinks or Marvin Mandel ashtrays for the faithful. No more power to confer power, no more illusion of power that became power itself.

Now there is just Marvin Mandel as he emerged from Delta Flight 150 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on that Friday afternoon: a slight, tourist-class passenger wrapped in a fine, Brooks Brothers coat, a 61-year-old prisoner returning to freedom with the glee of a child, a governor without a state.

Still, there were the echoes. What of that embrace he got upon his return from the federal pen, with the mob of journalists anxious to chronicle his every utterance and the band of well-wishers -- not power brokers, just people -- there to present him a hero's welcome? The very thought would disgust those who fought for years to brake his power, first in the political theater, finally in a federal courtroom. It was as if Mandel, ever the master orchestrator of events, had transformed imprisonment into a badge of martyrdom, turning a harsh parole commission's rulings to his advantage.

"The parole board screwed it up," lamented one of the Mandel prosecutors. "They should have paroled him six months ago. That would have been a routine parole for a routine white-collar criminal. Now there's this view that he's poor Marvin Mandel, mistreated by the system, instead of Marvin Mandel, a public official who abused the public trust. In the case of someone as publicly prominent as he is, it does the institution of justice a great disservice."

But Mandel's return has become a fascination for many of his one-time intimates who sat in their far-flung homes and offices and watched it all on television. Even several who dubbed him a has-been wondered aloud if the power of the man is really gone, simply because the office has passed to someone else.

And even if his era is over, what about them? What of the power they hungered for, and the taint of scandal that trailed them for it? Does it ever really end? The Piano Player

"Do you praise Mandel? Do you ignore Mandel? Do you bury Mandel?" Frank A. DeFilippo was asking. The questions sounded strangely detached, coming from "Flip," Mandel's first and only press secretary, and later his chief of staff. He asks them now in a strictly professional, not personal, sense, he explained. He is now building his own political consulting firm, and his clients need to know the answers. It is hard to find the balance: In ways, the Mandel mantle still means access to money and support, particularly in Baltimore. But in the uncertain political atmosphere of post-Mandel Maryland, said DeFilippo, it is important to move on, too.

At times, it seemed he was talking as much about himself as about his clients.

As if to underline the point, the telephone rang in the middle of the conversation and it was Mandel. It was their first conversation since the ex-governor's return; DeFilippo had not gone to the airport, had not attended a welcome-home party thrown over the weekend by a lobbyist-friend.

"Saw you on TV! You look great!" the one-time press secretary exclaimed to his one-time boss, his voice booming more than it had moments earlier, his shiny cheeks beaming, as if all the bluster and dash of the old days had suddenly returned.

The two talked political odds about the 1982 governor's race -- "The issue is leadership," Mandel said, taking a shot at Gov. Harry Hughes, the mild-mannered man who rode an anti-Mandel backlash to victory in 1978 -- and then they talked legislative issues. At the end, the old boss asked a favor of his old employe: Would DeFilippo locate a clipping service to gather all the articles published about Mandel's return to Maryland?

"Sure, I'll see what I can do," DeFilippo responded, deputized suddenly as the press secretary again.

Afterwards, he said the phone call and the Mandel return held no nostalgia value for him. He is glad to have moved out on his own, he said. "One game I don't play is 'Remember when. . . ?' "

What then of the Mandel pictures and proclamations that line two walls in the modern, tower office with windows on downtown Baltimore? The "1973-74 Maryland Manual" that stands next to the recent ones on the cabinet behind his desk? The loose-leaf binder that holds the collected speeches of Marvin Mandel, 56th governor of Maryland?

"It was a very significant eight years of my life," he answered, explaining what the pictures make obvious.

"Flip" was the one who wrote every speech (including the "Maryland has become a postmark for greed and corruption" speech, attacking former Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, a line that came back to haunt Mandel), the divorce statement ("I am in love with another woman, Mrs. Jeanne Dorsey, and I intend to marry her"), the denials of the mounting charges, the railing denunciations of federal prosecutors and the press. And it was Flip, too, who collected the Mandel papers, although the state of Maryland has not published them. (Even Agnew's papers were published, DeFilippo pointed out.)

And yet, alone among Mandel's inner circle, he gave answers -- damaging answers -- to what prosecutors asked, in the grueling months of grand jury probing and trials. A friend called him "the piano player in the whorehouse," the one who came out unscathed. Some politicians speak of him jokingly as "repatriated," but he does not laugh about it.

Still, he says he remains close to Mandel. And he appears at times to relish conjuring up the aura of the old days, talking with enthusiasm of the giddiness, the intoxication, the spilling over of power to those with access to Mandel. "I sat there for eight years. All I had to do was pick up the phone and say, 'Marvin wants . . .' and it would get done," he said. He can still give "the speech," recounting the unprecedented Mandel batting average in the legislature that produced environmental reforms, gun control, a massive reorganization of state government -- achievements hailed at the time, now washed into history along with the scandal, the backlash against the concentration of power.

"You have to go into it expecting it to end. The day you walk out of that office, your phone stops ringing. You make calls and they don't come back," he said. "What you miss is the excitement, and to just suddenly stop . . ."

What was his favorite speech he ever wrote? he was asked.

"The Watergate speech," he answered, without hesitation. He pulled it out of the collected papers. It is dated May 17, 1973, commencement day at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, home of America's first native-born saint. That was the day Mandel made national news with one of the most stirring denunciations to date of the corruption of the Nixon administration, words written by DeFilippo.

The words are haunting now -- laced with many of the same phrases that prosecutors later applied to the Mandel case.

"Pick your phrase, call it what you will . . . corruption in government . . . arrogance of power -- a few, grubby little men have humbled this once proud and mighty nation," the speech reads. ". . . Too often we rush in to punish the corrupted and ignore the corruptors. What of the man who extends the bribe? What of the company that offers to pay under the table for lucrative government contracts and favorable decisions?"

This from the governor who was later convicted of using his office to enrich his friends in return for lavish gifts and loans from them. At the time of the Watergate speech, the political corruption scheme that the Mandel prosecutors detailed had already been consummated.

A visitor read the speech aloud to DeFilippo, wondering about the irony. There was a long silence. Then, he answered: "That's not the point. That speech had a thesis -- that corporate board room techniques were being used at the highest levels of government. Business had access. It was a Republican administration." But, like the Mandel phone call, it seemed now to have more than one meaning -- even the best speech is now tinged with the bad associations.

Although he vows that it is all behind him now, DeFilippo is writing a book about the Mandel era. He has been working on it for four years. His explanation for doing it sounds almost like the official pitch that could go on the back jacket: "Done properly, it can be an important document, an eyewitness account of what happened in government," he said. "Besides," the former Baltimore reporter said with a big grin, "it's one helluva good story."

"And you know," he added after a long pause, looking in silence at the skyline of Baltimore, the city where Mandel began his rise to political prominence: "I gotta get it out of my system."

The day was over. As he got up to leave, he remembered that he had forgotten to carry out Mandel's request, a slip that never would have occurred in the old days. He snapped his fingers and cursed. "Find Marvin a clipping service," he said aloud, as he wrote the words on his calendar for the next day. 'Everything Passes'

The Mandel call to DeFilippo was placed from a west Baltimore furniture store -- the office of Mandel's prime patron and old friend, multimillionaire Irvin Kovens, whom the ex-governor had stopped to see on his job-hunting rounds.

More than anyone else, Kovens made Mandel. The towering Kovens was the city's unrivaled political leader -- political boss, to those who disapproved -- when Mandel entered politics a generation ago. No one could sell tickets like Kovens. He was responsible for ticketed events that raised $1.2 million for Mandel's 1970 gubernatorial campaign, and for a single event that raised more than $900,000 for his 1974 reelection. Those who bought his tickets often found that he reciprocated, with patronage from those he helped elect, with generous contributions to charity and causes (he received thank-you plaques from Associated Jewish Charities and Welfare Fund, a lifetime membership in the NAACP). Through this sort of reciprocity, precinct workers were mobilized, political clubhouses were united, an organization was built. And still more money was raised. It was said that nothing gave Kovens as much pleasure as being able to pick up the phone, get instant access to the governor, and get someone a job -- "helping people," as the politicians say. So in a way, Mandel made Kovens, too.

That is all over now, a gaunt Kovens said recently, from behind the pay window at his store, where discount furniture, clothes and appliances are sold on installment to the poor. Kovens was convicted of fraud and racketeering along with Mandel. They were sent off together to Eglin Air Force Base prison in 1980. There Kovens suffered the latest of several heart attacks, which led to major coronary bypass surgery and an early parole.

"If I had it to do all over again, I probably never would have gotten into politics, considering the end results," he said in a rumbly, tired-sounding voice. "I'm out of it. I've given away my lists. I'm not even a resident. I'm a resident of Florida."

He reached into his pocket to offer proof, pulling out a folded wad of dollar bills (no wallet). He thumbed past several items stuck inside the fold -- credit cards, multicolored slips of paper with names penciled on them, a Social Security card. Finally, he came to what he was looking for: his Florida driver's license. He flashed it just long enough to show the Florida seal, to prove that yes, he is a resident of Florida, not Maryland.

But still he seems to love telling the tales of his political accomplishments, of how close he is to Mandel. He mentions that Mandel, upon learning earlier this month of his impending release from prison, instructed his lawyer: "You call Irv Kovens and I'm gonna call my wife." And, Kovens added with a smile, "Before I was finished talking to the lawyer , Marvin was on my other line calling me."

The call came in collect, and Kovens accepted it, he said. "He always had to call collect from Eglin . They all called collect," Kovens said of Mandel and the men convicted with them.

Now, with Mandel financially broken and politically sidelined, many of his old patrons, including some of the businessmen convicted along with him, have become less generous-- but not Kovens, who conceded grudgingly that he has continued loaning money to Mandel since their trial. (A $150,000 loan from Kovens to Mandel, underwriting the then-governor's divorce, figured prominently in the corruption case that led to their conviction.)

"Right now I'm not lending him money , but I have since the case. Let's say I've helped him out financially and leave it at that," Kovens said. "There's no law against it. I knew he needed it. I know what he's gone through. Let's put it this way: I'd always help Marvin Mandel."

Some politicians believe Kovens could still reshape Maryland's political landscape -- conviction or no conviction -- if he rallied the stamina or the desire. Some say they see his fingerprints even now on certain developments. But many of the old tools are gone. There is less access to patronage; the old "walk-around money" to finance precinct bush-beatings on election day has been banned; there are campaign finance restrictions; political clubs are more independent, and then -- this is what Kovens cites most bitterly --there is the growing influence of the media.

"I think I'll just retire and let the papers take over," he said tersely from behind a metal desk in his old furniture store, where he spends one week a month going over vanilla-colored cards that record collections from his customers. He conceded, though, that the power of the media could pass. "Yeah, I guess that'll pass. I'll pass. Everything passes." Good Luck and Bad

The most cruel blow to Kovens' so-called "organization," came in the 1978 gubernatorial election, when a dark horse named Harry Hughes-- a former Mandel Cabinet member known mainly for his resignation in the middle of the corruption case-- rode to victory on an anti-Mandel, "integrity in government" platform.

The man who fell from power in that backlash was Blair Lee III, Mandel's lieutenant governor and most likely successor -- a Princeton-educated Montgomery County native with a patrician bearing who had little in common with Mandel except that they had melded their diverse skills and constituencies for years. But that year, 1978, the old Mandel magic worked as a curse for Lee.

"We took polls and the outcome was always the same," Lee recalled from the sitting room of his secluded home, where he is now retired. "I was perceived as personally honest and not part of the so-called Mandel gang. But the feeling was there, around the state: people wanted to close the book. . . . It ended my political career, the fact that I was seen as part of that whole chapter, even if I wasn't of it."

But Lee, whose political history reaches far deeper than Mandel, deeper even than Maryland, appears genuinely at peace about his departure from the halls of state power, perhaps because he was never as personally caught up as the others in Mandel and his mystique. He watched Mandel's return on television and remembers feeling "just so happy to see him get out. I always felt miserable about the thought of poor old Marvin sorting laundry down there in prison." He said he has not called to welcome Mandel back, but only because he does not know his home phone number.

Lee stared into a crackling fire, surrounded by soft-colored oils portraying his ancestors, the Lees of Virginia, the Blairs of Blair House. "You miss the trappings of office, but there are a lot of offsetting things," he said. "We're all grown up. These things happen. You take the good luck and the bad luck in turn."

The luck has been mixed for those who benefited most publicly from their access to Mandel at the peak of his power. Four businessmen-friends convicted along with him are said still to control large fortunes, although the case shattered their personal lives. Three of them -- Harry Rodgers III, William Rodgers and W. Dale Hess, all with net worths in the millions at the time of the trial-- did not return calls or requests for interviews. But one associate of the trio said: "I wouldn't worry about those guys." And Kovens, whose net worth was put at $8.8 million during the trial, still presides over a formidable financial empire, although he declined to discuss it.

The exception is Ernest N. Cory Jr., a former Prince George's County lawyer-politician who did legal work for the men who secretly purchased the Marlboro Race Track in 1971. He was convicted along with them, all the while protesting that he did not know what was afoot. Cory said he never knew Marvin Mandel at all. The trial judge, apparently in recognition of his back-bench role, did not sentence Cory to prison.

Since the trial, Cory has suffered tremendous financial losses. He accepted voluntary disbarment and forfeited his legal practice. To pay debts, he has sold off some real estate interests, horses, hunting boots, a baby grand piano, cars and more, and he and his wife of more than 40 years have taken in boarders. He has been unable to find a job, although he has sent out dozens of resume's "every time I'd see an ad. Every damn week. And it comes to nothing."

But he says his self-image may have suffered most of all. "I think I was a number one pluperfect patsy," he said. "It's hard for a guy who's had as much education as I have to swallow the thought I was as stupid as I was." He is not convinced that he did anything illegal, he said, but he sometimes wonders about the moral side. He is now taking a course at the University of Maryland entitled "Professional Responsibility," and has written a paper citing his experiences in the Mandel case.

He said he believes greed drew him into the whole affair. For him, too, there was the intoxication.

It does not seem fair, he said, that Mandel has been received so differently from Cory. "How'd he get to be a conquering hero from those kind of wars?" he asked, sitting in the living room of his house on secluded Corn Island in Anne Arundel County. "I guess I'm kind of jealous. I'd like to get that kind of reaction from somebody. I can't even get a job, and he gets one his first week back. I don't really have anything against him. I'd just like a little of his luck."

The old Mandel staff, the men who worked round-the-clock to make his administration work like a well-oiled machine, hasn't had many reunions in the years since the downfall. They gathered once in 1979, at a celebration just after an appeals court overturned Mandel's conviction. (Four months later, another ruling reinstated it.)

A picture from that reunion now stands, encased in plastic, on the back corner of the desk of Michael Silver, a 37-year-old Baltimore attorney who spent seven years drafting bills and dispensing patronage for Mandel.

The picture is almost obscured by books and papers, but it is there. "That's my reminder of the transitory nature of power," Silver said, a cultivated detachment in his voice. One of the seven smiling men around Mandel in the picture is now dead. The other six include two judges, one convicted felon, a political consultant, a train engineer and a lawyer-bureaucrat.

"Some die, some survive, some are convicted, some make it, some are trying to make it, some achieve greatness," said Silver, the lawyer-bureaucrat, summing up the significance of the picture as he sees it now. He numbers himself among the survivors, he said. He is one of the only ones in the picture who has not spoken to Mandel since his return. 'Oh Baby!'

Of all about Mandel that tantalized these different men, the thing that vexed them most was the side that had nothing to do with statecraft -- his obsession with Jeanne Dorsey, the commanding and beautiful woman for whom he left his first wife in the middle of his 1974 reelection campaign, and who became his second first lady.

In a recent wide-ranging interview, with Jeanne Mandel at his side, the former governor said he had planned to retire from the House of Delegates in 1970, to divorce his first wife and marry Jeanne Dorsey. But then in 1969, the governorship came along, and he called his terms as governor "probably the most rewarding thing, other than Jeanne, that could have happened to me."

The two looked at each other like young lovers, their eyes sparkling.

The marriage strained many of Mandel's longtime political friendships. The men who once vied for closeness to him said they felt his new wife had taken him away from them, changed his life style. Some said they simply could not understand why a man with so much power -- power that meant as much to them as to him -- would put any of it at risk by pursuing a prolonged affair and finally a stormy divorce.

Several of them even blame Mandel's downfall on his obsession with marrying Jeanne Dorsey. They contend it led him to accept many of the gifts and loans for his divorce that were listed in his criminal indictment -- a theory that the Mandels hotly dispute. But during one pretrial conference of all defendants and defense attorneys, Kovens is said by one participant to have turned to Mandel and muttered jokingly: "You know, Marvin, if you weren't such a god-damned lover, none of us would be where we are today." Mandel and Kovens deny that the comment was ever made, but it has been gleefully circulated by the set of old Mandel acquaintances who grew to resent his second wife's hold on him.

As Mandel reminisced freely last week about the power he amassed and the people who were part of it, he said he does not really miss it, does not feel deserted by old friends. He looks forward, he said, to private life with his wife and her son -- a comment followed by another flirtatious glance. Few Maryland politicians expect him to stay out of the fray for long, though.

Mandel said, too, that he is not bothered by the prospect of old friends taking polls in 1982 before deciding whether to publicly embrace him, flee him or ignore him in their reelection campaigns. "I can understand it being a political question," he said. "You know, I've been through the whole mill."

A smile played on his lips, he chewed his pipe and then observed, in vintage Mandel style: "You know, there are some people asking that question who don't have to worry about it, because I wouldn't support them for dogcatcher."

Apparently pleased with his one-liner, he beamed, and looked to Jeanne Mandel, who threw back her head and laughed loudly, almost devilishly, her eyes dancing as she looked at her smiling, pipe-puffing husband.

"Oh, baby!" she exclaimed, clutching her hands tightly together as if in a cheer. "You're still my governor. You always will be."